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Social Democrat To Become Austria's Next President

Heinz Fischer, the Social Democrat candidate won the Austrian presidential election Sunday, edging out conservative Foreign Minister Ferrero-Waldner, who was hoping to become the country's first female head of state.


Fischer comes out trumps.

With 50 percent of the votes counted, Heinz Fischer, the candidate of the opposition Social Democrats, had close to 52 percent of electorate support. Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the conservative endorsed by Haider, had just over 48 percent.

Right-wing populist Jörg Haider's backing of Ferrero-Waldner and her rival's critical stance toward the Austrian rightist, whose appeal extends to the neo-Nazi fringe, added spice to an otherwise humdrum race for the mostly ceremonial position.

Ferrero-Waldner was supported by the conservative People's Party and key members of their government partners, Haider's right-leaning Freedom Party. Fischer is a deputy speaker of parliament.

Although the post of president is largely ceremonial, the result will thus indirectly show how the government coalition is faring in voter popularity midway through its term and in the aftermath of pension reforms and other unpopular legislation.

Slight differences in campaigns

While few issues separated the two candidates, there were nuances.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner Präsidentschaftswahlen in Österreich

Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner

Ferrero-Waldner (photo), 55, had cautiously favored debate on whether its time has come to reconsider the country's 49-year-policy of neutrality, an important part of the

Austrian national identity.

Fischer, 65, insisted neutrality is non negotiable, while at the same time favoring an undefined "solidarity pact" with the rest of the European Union that would include some kind of military support in case of need.

Ferrero-Waldner put herself forward as an internationally experienced leader, promising to spend most of her time selling Austria abroad. She would have been the first female president, and her campaign marketed her as "the first."

Fischer, meanwhile, promised to work to create opportunities for Austria's youth and security for the country's elderly. His election posters carried the slogan: "Politics need a conscience."

A largely ceremonial post

The Austrian president is commander in chief of country's tiny military, and the constitution gives the president the power to reject nominations for Cabinet ministers or even to remove them from office -- something that has rarely been done.

Still, with many Austrians believing the office of president is obsolete, the chancellor runs the country's day-to-day affairs.

The elections in large part were significant for what that the results said say about the popularity of the parties supporting the two rivals.

"Fischer is the better candidate, but I'm voting for Ferrero," said security guard Karl Woltemar, reflecting the trend to vote not for the two contenders but for the parties behind them. "I don't like the Socialists."

Haider: controversial as ever

Wahlen in Österreich Jörg Haider

Governor of Carinthia and top candidate of the Freedom party Jörg Haider

The rightist Freedom Party, whose former leader, Haider (photo), is notorious for past remarks that sounded sympathetic to the Nazis and contemptuous of Jews, did not give an official endorsement.

Still, Haider made several campaign stops with Ferrero-Waldner, giving her a live pig as a good-luck charm during an event in the southern province of Carinthia, where he is governor. Ferrero-Waldner has sought the support of Freedom Party backers, and Haider and others in

his party said they would vote for her.

Fischer, in contrast has been criticized by Haider and his colleagues for repeating his rejection of Haider's controversial remarks and for distancing himself from

Freedom Party policies.

Current President Thomas Klestil, who put distance during his tenure from his backers, the People's Party, to become a political independent, is ending his second six-year term and is prohibited by the constitution from running for re-election.

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